In front of the lens and behind it
It might seem strange to do an article in our The Westerns of… series on an actor who appeared in only two feature oaters, and one of those was a contemporary rodeo picture, hardly by some definitions a Western at all.
But Ida Lupino had much more influence on our noble genre than this might suggest. Apart from her performances in Lust for Gold (1949) with Glenn Ford and Junior Bonner (1972) with Steve McQueen, in both of which she was outstandingly good, she was also a skilled editor and director and knew a lot about cinematography. In addition she wrote and produced. In the Western genre she acted in eight episodes of TV shows and directed sixteen. Altogether she was involved in 29 Westerns, big screen and small.
Several of the TV shows concerned are available on YouTube and make good watching. We have already reviewed the features, so see the index for those.
Ida was a most interesting person and her posthumous sort-of memoir, Ida Lupino: Beyond the Camera, more a book by a friend really (and not terribly well written) gives a lot of background.
She was born in England to a showbiz family. She toured with a traveling theater company as a child. By the age of ten, she had memorized the leading female parts in all of Shakespeare’s plays. She studied at RADA and got film roles in the early 1930s, often taking ‘bad girl’ parts. She later said, “My agent had told me that he was going to make me the Janet Gaynor of England – I was going to play all the sweet roles. Whereupon, at the tender age of thirteen, I set upon the path of playing nothing but hookers.”
She moved to Hollywood in 1933 and got a five-year contract at Paramount. She moved to Warners and got better and better roles during the 1940s. She jokingly referred to herself as “the poor man’s Bette Davis”, taking the roles that Davis refused. It was however a strained relationship. Jack Warner wanted a sultry starlet and Lupino had bigger and more artistic ambitions.
She and her then-husband, producer and writer Collier Young, formed an independent company, The Filmakers Inc [sic], to “produce, direct, and write low-budget, issue-oriented films”. The pictures daringly explored such issues as polio (she herself had been diagnosed in 1934), unwanted pregnancy, rape and bigamy.
She continued to act, in order to raise money for her films, and she was stunningly good in her first Western as the crafty Julia Thomas who traps gold miner Dutch Walz (Ford) in Columbia’s Lust for Gold in 1949. She pretends to be all sweet and innocent (and unmarried) but really, of course, she’s after his money like everyone else. She finally receives a crushing response. It was a classic Lupino part and she handled it brilliantly.
Her outside interests included writing short stories and children’s books, and composing music. She was a Catholic and a staunch pro-Kennedy Democrat.
Her first marriage had been to Louis Hayward and after Young her third was to Howard Duff (they were married 1951 – 83 though separated in 1972) and the couple became a kind of Hollywood royalty.
In 1956 she appeared in an episode of Zane Grey Theatre, Fearful Courage, which explored (within the limits of its 22’ runtime) the nature of bravery. It was really a two-hander with the excellent James Whitmore and has a traditional ruthless rancher vs. plucky homesteader plot.
In 1958 she was in an episode of Frontier Justice with a similar title, The Fearful Courage, which I haven’t seen (it’s not on YouTube) but it has the same cast and her character has the same name. It seems to have been a repeat under a different name.
The following year Ida directed her first Western TV shows when she helmed some episodes of Have Gun – Will Travel: S2 E31, The Man who Lost, then S3 E1, First Catch a Tiger, and S3 E13, Charley Red Dog. She said, “Richard Boone [she called him Dicky Bird] was a wonderful man, but he was not out to baby any director, believe me. But after the first episode he said, ‘I like you. I want you on the rest of them.’ I stayed on and directed four episodes.”
In the first, Paladin is hired by Jack Elam to bring in Mort Mills for murder – $500 dead or $1000 alive. Everyone tells him to just collect the $500. But Mort says he didn’t do it…
First Catch a Tiger (that’s the first step in the recipe for tiger stew) sees Paladin hearing of a hit put out on him by the father of a man he brought in, and going to face the danger on his own terms. He finds that the rancher has hired three men but doesn’t know which of them is Fred Horn, the famed killer. It turns out to be John Anderson, dong the job well as usual, and it ends in a quick-draw showdown. You may guess who wins.
Charley Red Dog starred a very un-Native American looking Scott Marlowe in heavy make-up playing an Indian who wants to become marshal of a small town but faces prejudice. Paladin is on his side, naturally.
All these episodes are well handled, with tension building. It was remarkable how much delineation of character and even character development these short shows managed, and much of that was down to the writing and direction.
Also in ’59 Ida directed an episode of Hotel Paree with Earl Holliman, The Man who Believed in Law, with the well-worn plot of citizens hiring a tough marshal to clean up the town and not liking the consequences.
And that was followed by an acting role in a Bonanza episode directed by good old Joe Kane, one of the comic ones (unfortunately), The Saga of Annie O’Toole. Ida played the title role as a chirpy colleen whose lack of education does not prevent her being a very shrewd businesswoman.
So 1959 was quite a busy Western year for Ms Lupino.
1960 was too. She directed four more Have Gun shows. The Day of the Bad Man, S3 E17, had Paladin cleaning up the town this time, Cedar Wells. In Lady on the Wall, S3 E23, Paladin is accused of art theft, stealing the painting behind the bar of the town of Bonanza’s only remaining saloon. Lady with a Gun, S3 E30, was about a man (Rudy Rossback) pursued by a gunwoman (Paula Raymond) out to avenge the death at Rossback’s hands of her younger brother in the Civil War. And The Trial, S3 E38, has Robert F Simon hiring Paladin to bring his son in (alive, natch) for murdering his fiancée but a bounty hunter (good old Ray Hatton) gets to the boy first and shoots him in the back. Simon wants Paladin to serve ‘justice’ on the bounty hunter.
Also that year Ida starred in a Death Valley Days episode directed by Harry Harris, Pamela’s Oxen, in which she was the widow Pamela who is deaf to the pleas of Sam Houston (Jeff DeBenning) for her oxen – which he needs to pull cannon.
And she directed another episode of Hotel de Paree, Sundance and the Boat Soldier, and two of Tate with David McLean, Stopover and The Mary Hardin Story.
1961 saw Ida directing two Western TV shows, another Have Gun, S4 E26, The Gold Bar, and an episode of The Rifleman, Assault.
1959 – 61 was really the peak of her TV Westerns but she continued to helm or act in the occasional episode through the 60s, notably of The Virginian. In 1963 she and husband Howard Duff appeared in A Distant Fury (S1 E25), in 1965 she had a smaller part in We’ve Lost a Train, and in 1966 she directed one of the Charles Bickford ones, Dead-Eye Dick.
She appeared in The Night of the Big Blast, a 1966 episode of The Wild Wild West in which she is Dr Faustina who has shaped a corpse to look like Jim West and with her mute servant managed to bring it back to life. That year too she directed The King’s Shilling, an episode of Daniel Boone, and the year after that she helmed The Thy Brother’s Keeper Brief, an episode of Dundee and the Culhane.
In 1969 she had a leading part in The Thin Edge, an episode of The Outcasts. But that was that for the 60s as far as Westerns went.
In 1972 she did an episode of Alias Smith and Jones in which she played a gambling queen accused by Jed and Hannibal of running a crooked game, and she orders the boys beaten up as a result. But more importantly that year, though only twelve years older than Steve McQueen, she played Elvira, McQueen’s mother and Robert Preston’s estranged wife for Sam Peckinpah in Junior Bonner. She is really the only one who truly understands Junior and it is a moving performance. She really was a great actor, even if she preferred to be behind the camera rather than in front of it.
She said, “Critics wrote that this was my come-back film. I never left; I was busy directing all those years.”
Ida’s last Western contribution was Female Artillery, a 73’-minute 1973 made-for-TV comedy Western directed by Marvin Chomsky and screened by ABC. An outlaw joins up with a wagon train of pioneer women and secretly hides some money there, but his old gang shows up and wants their money – and the women.
It wasn’t easy for a woman to direct men in the macho world of 50s Hollywood but she did it with a retiring, low-key skill based on real know-how. The great cinematographer Archie Stout, who shot Fort Apache for John Ford, once said, “Ida has more knowledge of camera angles and lenses than any director I’ve ever worked with, with the exception of Victor Fleming.”